x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

New Dubai mosque honours the glory of God

Inspired by the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the new Al Farooq Omar bin Al Khittab Mosque in Dubai is an architectural wonder that will be open to all.

Minarets of the under-construction Al Farooq Mosque are seen during a sunrise in Al Safa, Dubai (Pawan Singh / The National)
Minarets of the under-construction Al Farooq Mosque are seen during a sunrise in Al Safa, Dubai (Pawan Singh / The National)

It was in early March when the weather was still cool enough to pause for a moment after loading the Prado with groceries, that shoppers at the Spinneys supermarket in Umm Suqeim first noticed four scaffolding-clad towers emerging above the rooftops of nearby villas and mansions.

A few weeks later, the steel lattice was removed to reveal a quadrangle of slender pencil-like towers, each topped with a powder blue pinnacle with a hue almost exactly matched to the dusty winter skies of Dubai creating an illusion that seemed to leave the crescent moons of the minarets floating between heaven and earth.

Close up, the bulk of the building was still concealed from curious eyes by tall sheets of painted plywood, but teams of workers could be seen labouring with intensity.

Its almost daily progress was monitored by the residents of Jumeirah and Al Safa, and the parents and children of nearby schools who drove past it twice a day.

It was the children who first described the building, comparing it to the soaring white and blue turrets of the ethereal castle that appears at the start of every Walt Disney cartoon.

In fact, its correct name is the Al Farooq Omar bin Al Khattab Mosque and Islamic Centre, and the external architecture is based on the magnificent Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the thousands of Iznek tiles that colour its interior walls and arches.

The Al Farooq Mosque in Dubai is being built not on the orders of an Ottoman sultan, but by Khalaf Al Habtoor, the chairman of the business empire that bears his family name and whose interests stretch from vehicle sales, schools and hotels to engineering and publishing.

When it is ready for prayers later this month, and on the eve of Ramadan, the Al Farooq Mosque will be one of the largest in the country, capable of accommodating about 2,000 worshippers and second in capacity to the colossal Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

The building is a gift to Dubai, to all those who live, visit and work in the city. As well as a place of worship, there will be a research library and Islamic centre with a lecture hall. Along with the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Jumeirah Mosque it will be one of three mosques in the UAE that opens its interior to non-Muslims.

The intention, says Mr Al Habtoor, is to create a space for dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths - the People of the Book - Jews, Christians and Muslims. "We made this centre so that the three religions can become closer and remove the differences between them.

"A lot of people are not aware that these religions are so close that the differences are like a hair crack.

The mosque is named after Umar bin Al Khattab, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed who became the second Caliph after Abu Bakr and was given the title Al Farooq, meaning someone who distinguished truth from falsehood.

An earlier, smaller building had stood on the site, a larger corner plot behind Al Wasl Road, since the 1980s, but it had become crowded during the most popular prayer times and three years ago, the Habtoor family decided to replace it with something larger. And so, early last summer, the demolition squads moved in.

The man in charge of building the complex is Yussef Shalabi, a Lebanese who is the director of projects and real estate for the Habtoor Group. Like many middle aged men, Mr Shalabi gives an initial impression of world-weariness that cannot conceal an uncompromising approach to building schedules and a meticulous attention to detail.

"We demolished the old mosque just before Ramadan last year," he explains. "So for the Habtoors' mosque we had a tent instead. It was agreed that the new mosque would be ready for the next Ramadan. We were not going to spend another Ramadan in a tent."

The pace of construction has been astonishing. The building of a mosque is generally measured in years rather than months. The original Blue Mosque, begun in the 17th century, took seven years to build. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi was conceived in the late 1980s but did not open until late 2007.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is much larger and the Al Farooq Mosque can use materials and building methods unavailable to even the finest Ottoman craftsmen four centuries ago.

On a visit in early April, teams of workmen are busy in every part of the site. On the outside, a gang of labourers are rendering a perimeter wall as a lorry packed with panes of stained glass reverses, beeping, toward the rear steps. A large crane prepares to raise a premoulded panel of Glass Reinforced Concrete into position on the concrete inner shell.

Inside presents a very different scene. The smaller day prayer room inside the main entrance has been converted into a temporary workshop for a large team of Moroccan craftsmen who have been flown to Dubai by the designers.

Some are casting intricately carved panels in gypsum, a process that involves creating silicon moulds from a single piece of carved wood that can then be replicated as often as needed.

The panels are then fixed into place and painted by hand.

Nearby a very different skill is being demonstrated. Another Moroccan man sits crossed legged on the floor surrounded by dozens of plastic bags, all filled with tiny fragments of glazed tiles, each a different shape in colour. He is fixing the tiles, face down, to a large half cylinder that will soon form the back of the mihrab, the semicircular niche on the wall of the main prayer hall that faces the Qibla, the direction that all Muslims must pray.

Another mihrab has already been completed in the smaller day prayer room. The intricacy of the design reveals the skill involved. Until it is completed and the supporting cylinder removed, the craftsmen can only see the unglazed backs of the tiny tiles. Each piece must be placed into a pattern and colour thread committed to memory. Any error will only be obvious once the work is done.

The interior is dominated by the great central dome, rising 30 meters. An empty space, it awaits the arriving of the main chandelier, which will hang from single an eight metre pole. That the pole should be properly attached to the roof of the dome is currently one of Mr Shalabi's main preoccupations. Around the walls are hand carved inscriptions from the Quran.

Although the external appearance of the mosque, designed by the Dubai architects M Al Shaikh Mubarak, closely follows the Blue Mosque, it is not a cloned replica. The Dubai version, of course, is smaller, with only four minarets for the six in Istanbul, although the UAE minarets will still be nearly 60 metres high including the crescent moons. But there are also subtle changes with the array of half domes now that surround the main dome. Originally these were designed as full domes, but, Mr Shalabi says "It looked a bit odd. So we went with the half domes and the effect was to raise the height of the whole mosque by two metres."

Another change ordered by Mr Shalabi is the glass windows, which were originally intended to be plain, but are now blue stained glass flooding the interior with cool, peaceful light. Changes like this are testimony to the Habtoors' faith in their director of projects. In return, he has given them complete commitment, estimating that in the past few months he has spent more than a third of his time in the mosque.

A second visit, in mid-June, reveals the mosque is almost finished. The chandelier, despite Mr Shalabi's concerns, hangs in place; dozens of traditional brass lanterns, each fitted, in a gesture to the environment, with energy saving light bulbs.

The mihrab is also installed, the patterns dazzling and not a tile out of place.

The carpet, woven in Germany, has been fitted underfoot and visitors, cooled by newly activated air conditioning, must now remove their shoes. Upstairs, workmen make adjustments to the women's prayer room that will allow them a view of the main prayer hall.

Outside, workers from Dubai Municipality lay the brick pavement surrounding the complex. The white lines have been painted in the car park and at dusk, the minarets are bathed in soft floodlights.

Yusef Shalibi inspects the iman's house, now ready for occupancy, and the empty shelves of the library. There are already chairs in the main lecture room. The stainless steel fittings in the ablution rooms have been cleaned and polished. "Like a hotel," Mr Shalabi observes with satisfaction.

He strolls across the courtyard in front of the heavy doors that guard the main entrance and pauses by the empty ceremonial fountain and pool where the last tiles are being laid.

The interior is a deep blue, but the plastic filter covers are white. Probably they will be invisible when the fountain is on, but Mr Shalabi orders them painted white.

In a few weeks, the first worshippers will gather, among them Mr Al Habtoor and other members of his family. From the four minarets, the call to prayer will echo with other mosques across the rooftops of Jumeirah. And a promise will have been kept. This year, Ramadan will not be marked in a tent.

 

jlangton@thenational.ae